The Cable

Russia to Veto ICC War Crimes Probe for Syria

Russia will veto a U.S.- and French-backed Security Council resolution that would have authorized an investigation by the International Criminal Court (ICC) into mass crimes by Syria's government and rebels, dealing a decisive blow to international efforts to hold Syria's mass killers to account for their crimes.

The Russian threat, which was delivered to reporters by Russia's U.N. envoy, came less than a day before the U.N. Security Council was scheduled to vote Thursday morning, May 22, on a French draft resolution granting the ICC prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, the power to launch a probe into excesses committed in a conflict that has left more than 150,000 people dead.

Asked whether Russia was prepared to block the initiative, Russia's U.N. envoy, Vitaly Churkin, told reporters on Wednesday outside the U.N. Security Council: "Yes, we do. Yes, we do. Yes, we do."

Churkin defended his government's decision, which would mark the first time a resolution calling for an ICC investigation has been vetoed. He said the West's decision to put the doomed resolution to a vote is a "publicity stunt" that would "have a detrimental effect unfortunately on our joint efforts in trying to resolve politically the crisis in Syria. But what will come will come."

The Security Council clash underscores the challenges of holding Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, his armed supporters, and anti-government Islamic extremists accountable for alleged crimes in Syria's more than three year long civil war. The clash is expected to send supporters of the court scrambling to find another venue for prosecuting perpetrators of crimes in Syria.

The push for an ICC prosecution has been gaining ground in recent months, with the United Nations' top human rights official, Navi Pillay, making repeated calls for the Security Council to approve an ICC investigation into crimes. Switzerland, meanwhile, has organized a group of 58 countries that urged the council to support the resolution. "We should not forget that we are responsible not only for our actions but also for our inactions," the group said in a statement. "We therefore call upon the Security Council to go forward and to adopt the resolution."

The effort received a major boost two weeks ago when the United States agreed to back the resolution. The United States had previously expressed misgivings about the virtue of supporting an ICC investigation, saying a lengthy trial would do little to halt the violence on the ground. But with U.S.- and Russian-sponsored political talks having largely collapsed, the United States showed renewed interest in sending the ICC to Syria, as long as it received assurances from France that the resolution would not target American or Israeli troops in the region.

The Russian veto appears to be unprecedented. The Security Council previously authorized ICC investigations in Darfur, Sudan, in 2005 and in Libya in 2011. Russia voted in favor of both resolutions. The United States and China, two other powerful council members that have not joined the ICC, abstained on the Darfur vote but supported the resolution approving an investigation in Libya. U.N.-based diplomats said they believe that China would cast a veto alongside Russia, whose president, Vladimir Putin, this week made a state visit to Beijing.

But even if China joins Russia, the resolution is expected to enjoy broad support in the 15-nation council, including from African governments Chad, Nigeria, and Rwanda, whose president, Paul Kagame, has been among the region's harshest critics of The Hague-based court.

This article has been updated.

Photo by Andrew Burton/ Getty Images

The Cable

GOP Senator to FBI Chief: Stop Encouraging Kids to Smoke Weed

FBI Director James Comey was on Capitol Hill Wednesday to talk about the threat of Chinese cyber hackers and the spawn of Al Qaeda plotting attacks inside the United States. But Alabama Republican Senator Jeff Sessions had a matter of even greater domestic urgency to discuss with America's top cop: Why are you encouraging kids to smoke weed?

Sessions told Comey he was "very disappointed" by a recent Wall Street Journal article in which Comey seemed to make light of the FBI's prohibition on hiring people who've smoked marijuana within the past three years.

"I have to hire a great workforce to compete with those cyber criminals, and some of those kids want to smoke weed on the way to the interview," Comey said at a conference in New York earlier this week, according to the newspaper.

Sessions wasn't amused. He asked Comey, "Do you understand that that could be interpreted as one more example of leadership in America dismissing the seriousness of marijuana use, and that could undermine our ability to convince young people not to go down a dangerous path?"

"Very much, Senator," Comey assured the senator, and quickly added: "I am determined not to lose my sense of humor. But unfortunately there I was trying to be both serious and funny."

Comey explained that his remarks were prompted by a conference goer, who said he knew of a great candidate for the FBI, but that he'd smoked pot within the past five years. Comey told him to go ahead and apply, and told the audience that the bureau was "grappling" with how to hire future agents from a pool of young applicants whose attitudes about marijuana use are more permissive than the FBI's.

Comey didn't quite tell Sessions to loosen up and smoke a bowl, saying he was "absolutely" against smoking marijuana and that he didn't want young people to smoke it. But, he told the senator, "Look, one of our challenges we face is getting a good work force at the same time when young people's attitudes about marijuana and our states' attitudes about marijuana are leading more and more of them to try it."

More than half of all states and the District of Columbia either have laws on the books allowing marijuana use for medical or recreational purposes or have decriminalized smoking pot. Comey cited a study from the American Medical Association that found that young smokers experience increased rates of anxiety and mental disorders.

Sessions seemed satisfied with his public scolding. "I think you should understand your words can have ramifications out there," he told Comey. 

Watch the full exchange here

Alex Wong / Getty Images News